On her 75th birthday, Dorothy had a heart attack. Her cardiologist called it “your first heart attack,” which caused Dorothy to close her lips tightly and glare at him. She had no intention of having another, thank you very much.
Having a heart attack was so much fuss, what with the pain and the worry and the ambulance and all her neighbors watching her taken away. Then there was the emergency surgery and the tests and new medications and her son having to fly out from three states away. Then on top of everything else, there was cardiac rehab class, 36 sessions, three times a week for 12 weeks.
At first she was annoyed about having to go to a gym and walk on a treadmill and ride a stationary bike under the watchful eye of a trainer. But as time went by, she came to appreciate it. Between the exercise and the new diet, she lost 20 pounds in three months. She was stronger and more energetic and her balance was better than it had been in years.
At her 36th session, her trainer congratulated her on her progress and cautioned her that she needed to keep it up so she would keep feeling well and not have another heart attack. When she learned that she couldn’t keep coming to the cardiac gym, that she’d have to go to another gym and pay for it, she was surprised at how disappointed she was. Seeing this, her trainer said, “You could just walk. Do you have any hills where you live?” Well, yes, she lived in a neighborhood with one big hill. Yes, she could go out and walk up and down that hill, and around the neighborhood, for half an hour 5 days a week.
So that was Dorothy’s new routine. After three days of wearing her old gardening shoes, she went to a shoe store and bought the walking shoes that the clerk recommended. At first she felt like she had boats on her feet, but by the end of her first outing in them, she loved the way they made her feet feel.
But walking… Walking was just so boring. She tried varying her route so it would still involve three times up and down the hill, but would include different streets too. Then she tried walking faster to get it over with, but she got too out of breath. She bought a watch that would measure her heart rate, and that was entertaining for a couple of days.
There were a lot of other walkers, and many of them were wearing ear buds, listening to she didn’t know what while they walked. Her son said they were probably listening to podcasts or music, and after considering it for a couple days, she took her iPhone to the Apple Store and bought some fancy new AirPods to go with it, and an app that would let her listen to any kind of music while she walked.
This was more like it. First she listened to all her favorite songs she could think of, and discovered that it was easier to walk up the hill when she was walking in time to music. Gradually, her walk extended into the wider neighborhood and she often added a fourth round of climbing the hill. As her walk extended, her musical choices did too.
Elvis Presley, Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte, Aretha Franklin. Music from her youth. Bob Dylan, The Supremes, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones. Music from her young adulthood. Fleetwood Mac, Whitney Houston, Bruce Springsteen. Popular music she’d missed. She tried R&B, but it was mostly too slow. She ventured into Hip Hop, and found it energizing, though she couldn’t understand most of the lyrics. (The one time she got curious enough to google the words, she was sorry she had. But she still enjoyed walking to the songs.) Probably her favorites were modern (to her) pop, Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars, Lady Gaga.
She learned the lyrics to a lot of songs and mouthed them silently. She walked to the beat of the music, and even swung her hips and shrugged her shoulders a little, though she was always conscious of the eyes upon her from the sidewalk, the street, and the windows of the houses and apartment buildings she walked past.
But one day, “Boys Boys Boys” by Lady Gaga was just starting as she arrived back home to her apartment, and she went into her living room and danced joyfully, full out, arms and legs, in time to the music until it ended and she sank into a chair, winded but feeling great. She hadn’t danced in… what? Forty years? More? She felt wonderful. And that’s what she had been going for, right?
After that, she didn’t worry about hiding her subtle little dance moves while she walked. And one morning, when she reached the base of the hill, she turned on “Boys Boys Boys” and danced her way up the hill, complete with energetic arm motions and lots of turning and twisting, even a twirl or two. When she got to the top, she looked down and saw some neighbors standing in a group, watching her and talking to each other. There was Sasha, who always pushed a baby stroller, Gerry the Jogger (as she called him), Laphonza with her little boy Aaron, and the old man she had avoided talking to because he always glared at her as she passed. She raised a hand and waved to them. Aaron immediately waved back, enthusiastically. Sasha and Laphonza slowly raised their hands and did the same. Gerry gave her a kind of salute. She could see they were talking to each other, and wondered if they were discussing whether she had suddenly become demented. That amused her, and she laughed out loud as she continued dancing down the street.
After that, she didn’t hold back. She continued to stop and talk to neighbors, even the grumpy old man whose name turned out to be Darrell. But between friendly conversations, she listened to her music and danced her way up and down the hill and through the streets of the neighborhood. People looked at her curiously, but she waved at everyone and they waved back.
One day she was mounting the hill just ahead of Laphonza and Aaron, and when she twirled around while she was dancing to “The Fame,” she saw that Aaron was dancing too, full on, joy on his 7-year-old face. And as she gave him a thumbs up, she saw that Laphonza, too, while sending a rueful smile at Sasha, started to dance a little as well.
The next day, the two were waiting for Dorothy when she approached the hill, and they both danced wholeheartedly up the hill behind her, music playing from the phone in Laphonza’s hand. The next day, Sasha joined them with the stroller, and the two young women even worked out some choreography, trading the stroller back and forth as they danced their way uphill.
Lizzie, who lived halfway up the hill, was in a wheelchair and could only dance from the waist up. But she opened her garage and cranked up her sound system and played dance music so the whole group (herself included) could dance to the same music. She liked Lady Gaga, too, and she also liked rock and roll. And for those few minutes in the morning, the neighborhood lost its quiet and became an al fresco dance space. At first, people came out their front doors and leaned out their windows, perhaps intending to complain about the music. But when they saw a white-haired lady leading a group of dancers including children and a baby stroller, they smiled, stopped to watch, and applauded. The next day, some of them came out of their houses and joined in.
And then it was a thing. Six days a week, at 10 am, Dorothy led a growing group of dancing neighbors up the hill. They started calling it “Dorothy’s Dance Party,” and somebody had the idea to have t-shirts made. On Saturdays, when most people were home from work, it got to be a pretty big group. One sunny Saturday, a local TV station filmed it for the evening news. AARP Magazine did an interview with Dorothy. Laphonza wrote a book called Dancewalking that made the bestseller list and landed her and Aaron on talk shows. Celebrity doctors praised Dorothy’s Dance Party for its many positive contributions to the health of seniors, children, and the community in general.
Dorothy’s Dance Party content proliferated on social media. Movie stars and professional athletes and political leaders posted about it. Around the country, cities and counties started having Dorothy’s Dance Party events at fairs and festivals. Some places didn’t have any hills, so many of them created one especially for the purpose.
Dorothy might have lived to be a hundred were it not for the encounter with a grocery truck on the 101 on her way home from the airport. She’d been in Boston, the honored guest at a Dorothy’s Dance Party event that was part of the Patriot’s Day festivities. She’d met a senator and the governor and other VIPs, but her personal favorite was Lady Gaga, who was just as nice and fun as Dorothy had always imagined. When Dorothy was still 30 miles from home, ahead of her on the freeway, the truck’s tire exploded, sending the huge vehicle sliding back and forth and finally onto its side, flattening the back end of the Uber car where Dorothy sat thinking about Lady Gaga. She died instantly. It was her 85th birthday.
Dorothy’s death was news for a minute. She had been a minor celebrity in a country that breeds minor celebrities in the thousands and tens of thousands. She was appealing because she represented the intersection of several cultural hot buttons, like aging, physical fitness, and community.
Laphonza bought a house with her book royalties and she and Aaron moved to a different neighborhood. Sasha had two more children in quick succession, and then went back to teaching. Gerry the Jogger got married, and by the time Dorothy died, he was jogging while pushing a double stroller. So a lot of people moved on, and the almost-daily Dorothy’s Dance Party faded away.
But every Saturday, a good crowd still gathers, Lizzie still opens up her garage door and cranks up the music, and for twenty minutes the one hill in the neighborhood becomes a community dance floor. More and more people come. There’s no business to conduct and nothing to buy. For twenty minutes a week, the neighbors just come out into the street and dance together.
And Dorothy never had that second heart attack.